More people are studying for a British degree outside the UK than within it. But how good a time are they having?
A new initiative from the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency and the British Council (the soft power arm of the British government) is intended reassure overseas students of UK qualifications of the experience they will receive. At the moment, it consists mainly of a memorandum of understanding and an agreement to share information, apparently with few powers of enforcement. It remains to be seen how it will be tested by a future case of student unhappiness with a British higher education offering, or how it will cope with a major crisis which involves the risk of reputation damage to UK higher education as a whole.
Concern about the quality of UK higher education delivered abroad is partly driven by the government’s interest in expanding this form of provision. There is continuing political warfare in the current UK coalition government over the number of visas to be issued to international students. Taking their fees while they get a British degree without leaving home is seen as one part of the solution.
The UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is in charge of universities, is also engaged in a domestic battle over the value of UK participation in international higher education. It has just published a report itemising nine ways in which students, their home nations and the UK itself all gain from it.
The document, produced by Cambridge-based educational consultants CRAC, suggests a range of outcomes that go well beyond the £8 billion a year that international students bring to the UK. Some are “soft” economic benefits. Encouragingly, most former students of UK universities would recommend the experience to others. They also get to like British products, enjoy doing business with British firms, and continue joining in UK professional networks after returning home.
CRAC adds that higher education in the UK makes students better at operating in the global world, and pushes their careers in their home countries.
Doubtless the same claims could be made by higher education in the US, Australia, or many other nations. However, it seems that only the UK feels obliged to defend one of its major export industries from domestic criticism. The Government has appointed Sir Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of Bristol University, to be its Education Champion as part of an official strategy to attract another 90,000 students into UK higher education in the next five years and also to encourage more British students to take courses abroad.